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Film Review: Shazam!

Forget Superman and Batman, DC has finally figured out how to make good superhero movies — they just had to look a bit deeper on the bench. The latest DC flick from Warner Bros., Shazam!, is an absolute blast

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Forget Superman and Batman, DC has finally figured out how to make good superhero movies — they just had to look a bit deeper on the bench. The latest DC flick from Warner Bros., Shazam!, is an absolute blast, and turns a whole lot of the old superhero movie tropes on their heads in the best way possible.

Much like Fox’s Deadpool served as a wacky variant on the Marvel movie formula, Shazam! pokes fun at a lot of the old cliches that stymied more than a few of its peers (including more than a few of the recent DC films from Warner Bros.). Instead of costumed heroes standing in the pouring rain and growling about making one another bleed, you get a guy in a bright red costume with a glowing lightning bolt on his chest doing the floss and shooting sparks to the Rocky theme. If it wasn’t clear to this point, yeah, this is not your usual DC movie.

Based on the decades-old comic hero, Shazam! is pretty much the textbook definition of wish fulfillment, with a teenage kid inheriting magical superpowers that put him in the same stratosphere as Superman. The kid, Billy Batson, is played here by Disney Channel alum Asher Angel; with the superhero variant brought to life by a super-buff Zachary Levi (likely best known for his geek-friendly turn on NBC’s Chuck). Billy’s best friend and superhero expert is fellow foster kid Freddy, played by breakout It star Jack Dylan Grazer.

Take a dash of Spider-Man, a PG-13 shot of Deadpool, a drop of Stranger Things, a few cups of Big (complete with a throwaway floor piano gag) and just a dollop of Harry Potter and you kinda get a feel for what director David F. Sandberg (Lights Out) is aiming for here. In Levi, you have a guy who really can channel how a kid might think and act when given the keys to a super-powered body. The story dips into a few cliches of the genre — i.e. the training montage and figuring out how his powers work — but Levi and Grazer make it fun and funny enough you more than enjoy the ride. Want to figure out if you’re bullet-proof? Bust into the middle of a robbery and ask the thieves to shoot you in the face. Want to see if you can fly? Try (and fail) to jump over a skyscraper. Sure, you’ve probably seen those jokes a dozen times in the trailers already, but they still work.

Of course, this being a superhero flick — you have to talk about the action. So how is it? The fight scenes fall back on what fans of the genre are almost certainly already familiar with, from high-flying punch outs to slugfests with dark and dreary demon creatures. It’s still entertaining enough, but not really anything that’s going to push the medium forward. The film’s big bad, Mark Strong’s Dr. Sivana, is drawn a bit thinly at times. But still, Strong’s charisma can carry you pretty far on its own.

Shazam!
Zachary Levi and Zack Dylan Grazer make it fun and funny enough you more than enjoy the ride

Where Shazam! really shines, though, is in the story of Billy Batson himself. He’s a foster kid who only wants to find his family, and spends most of his adolescence trying and failing to track down his missing mother. He’s just a kid grappling with emotions he’s not quite equipped for yet, and Shazam! wisely takes its time giving that arc room to breathe. At its heart, this is a story about family — a theme that makes for some surprising twists as the story goes on that we won’t spoil here. Sure, it’s not exactly new territory to tell a story about the family you find, but in the framework of a superhero story it’s not really something we’ve seen before.

Shazam! knows what makes it unique, and it leans hard into those narrative choices. This is a story fully told from a kid’s perspective, which isn’t something you get from most super-stories. They try to buy beer, and get a peek in a strip club. Y’know, stuff teenage boys would probably, actually do in this circumstance. There’s also the stakes, or to be more accurate, the lack thereof. Yes, Dr. Sivana is a threat to the world, but we really only see him causing chaos across Philly. This isn’t a story that really needed any universe-ending stakes, and keeping the story smaller really is a benefit.

It’s somewhat ironic that Warner Bros. is having its best creative luck with DC properties well outside the beaten path of A-listers like Superman or Batman that have dominated the box office for decades. It took Wonder Woman, Aquaman and now Shazam! for DC to finally start firing some creative shots back across the bow at Marvel Studios. If Shazam! is a harder glimpse at what DC has planned, I’d be happy to see this lightning strike twice.

Shazam! opens in the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada on April 5th and in Australia on April 4th.

SHAZAM!
Directed by: David F. Sanberg
Written by: Henry Gayden
Cast: Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Djimon Hounsou
Distributed by: Warner Bros. / DC Films
Run time: 132 minutes

Film Reviews

Film Review: Murder Mystery

Murder Mystery is a pretty crap film.

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Murder Mystery is the next film in the long line of terrible Adam Sandler films distributed by Netflix. At this point we’re not sure that Netflix actually watches these movies before they put them on their service but here we are. Murder Mystery, like many of the recent Sandler-helmed flicks, seem less like movies than they do lavish holidays that Adam Sandler and friends go on where filming of random skits tied together loosely by some semblance of narrative occurs. Much of the film is slapped together with the kind of duct-tape storytelling you’d find in all those mediocre SNL movies.

There is star quality though. Jennifer Aniston is back, after working alongside Sandler in 2011’s equally terrible Just Go With It, and they’ve roped in some pretty prominent names, including Luke Evans (Fast & Furious series, The Hobbit), Gemma Arterton, and a happily cashing in his check Terrence Stamp. What happens can be best described as stupid Cluedo, or more blatantly, a dumb Murder On the Orient Express where Sandler and Aniston’s characters, a bumbling New York cop and hair dresser, stumble upon a high-stakes inheritance-grab murder mystery where absurd things happen. It never makes much sense but the biggest problems with these movies are not so much the cartoony skits (Sandler’s cop is so bad at shooting his gun that when he does, it’s a cartoon-like hail of bullets missing their target), but just the insanely unbelievable characters that fill these movies. It’s OK to suspend belief, but at this point, you don’t believe for one second any of the characters would exist in real life or that any of them act like actual humans do. There is also no shortage of cartoon bozos: Fat New York cop sidekick? Check. Buffoony Inspector Clouseau French detective? Check. Overly Spanish Spanish guy? Check. Ali G Indian guy? Check. Even Gemma Arterton’s Jessica Rabbit-esque character would make Jessica Rabbit shake her head in disbelief. At least Rob Schneider isn’t in it.

Is it funny? No, but there are actually some moments worth a chuckle. And that’s already better than Sandler’s previous Netflix outings. Murder Mystery’s jokes are mostly at the expense of the exaggerated caricatures and Sandler’s goofy self, but for the most part, its pretty bereft of humor. To make matters worse, the film has that cheap Netflix sheen to it that makes it even more of a TV movie than it already is. In the end, the movie is such a blatant Murder on the Orient Express rip-off that the end scene literally shows the Orient Express train. Unironically too.

Netflix’s has a serious movie problem- one that we’ve talked about before. Murder Mystery, is no different. You can’t fault Sandler for continuing down this path. Same goes for Aniston. Both have more than established their craft over the years that at times, you can’t help but feel envious of the position they’re in. So what if they just want to put their feet up, cash in a nice pay check, and enjoy the nice sights? Who wouldn’t?

Murder Mystery is a pretty crap film, but it’s what happens when we’ve given this much clout to Netflix. Spielberg had a point when he said Netflix movies shouldn’t be competing for Oscars. It is not only because they eschew theatrical traditions, but it should also be because they’re crap. And not even in the Spielberg Artificial Intelligence sense of being an average movie- but in the Lifetime channel level of crap. So really, when you think about, Murder Mystery is all our fault.

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Film Reviews

Film Review: Booksmart

Booksmart is the wonderful story of complicated, messy but hopeful and joyous young adulthood

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booksmart

Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut Booksmart has had a rough time at the box office since its release a few weeks ago. Pundits have placed blame on poor marketing by Annapurna Pictures (the studio releasing it) but in truth, the film just isn’t a big cinema flick. But there’s nothing wrong with that because, in every sense, Booksmart is a brilliant film. It’s funny, it’s smart, it’s wonderfully written, well-directed, and filled with stories that are relatable across generations. But box offices are intrinsically built on those first weekend numbers, it is why it exists, and it is a shame the team behind the film has made a big deal out of the lack of box office draw instead of building on what will surely make it a cult classic- word of mouth.

The film tells the story of Amy and Molly, two high school seniors who have spent their high school careers being great in class, but not so great socially. The day before graduation they realize that their plan of spending their high school careers buried in books, getting straight A’s, and then transcending into the upper echelon of higher education is thwarted when the very people they thought they were escaping, have, in fact, accomplished the same. The difference is that they all had fun during high school while Amy and Molly didn’t. What ensues is a smart pastiche of college humor comedies and high school coming-of-age flicks that have been a staple of cinema across generations. Taking cues from Superbad and the recent Blockers, Booksmart takes raunchy humor and gross-out jokes but injects them with contemporary social dynamics. Universal stories of high school joy, friendship, and heartbreak are told with the kind of relatable charm that is rare- relatable regardless of age, gender, or sexuality. Its inclusivity has been praised not because it is gratuitous or forced, but because it feels genuine and heartfelt.

The two leads, played by Beanie Feldstein (Neighbors 2) and Kaitlyn Dever, are brilliant. If you watched the sitcom Last Man Standing you always knew that Dever was destined for greatness, so it’s no surprise that Booksmart is a great vehicle for her and Feldstein to show their talents. They both act with enough nuance when it is needed, but both sizzle with chemistry when they need to be riotously funny- the screen becomes their canvas and it is hard to escape their presence. Dever and Feldstein are flanked by an assemblage of funny people- Lisa Kudrow, Jason Sudeikis, Will Forte, Jessica Williams, the funny kid from Santa Clarita Diet– who all contribute to the film’s balanced characters. It is only at times that a few of them seem a little too much like a cartoon that it detracts from the film (still not sure what Billie Lourd’s character is about).

Billie Lourd and Kaitlyn Dever in Booksmart

Wilde’s first turn at directing has proven that she’s got a keen eye for it. Booksmart does all the basics right and when Wilde wants to shoot outside of the box, they get that right too (the scene in which our leads are trippin’ daisies on hallucinogens, in particular, comes off as both funny and well done).

Its strengths, aside from the leads, is the writing and the seemingly truthful way in which the film depicts teenagers (in this case, teenage girls) living through that period of high school transitioning off into college and the so-called ‘real world’. Much has been said about its authenticity, and even if you can’t directly relate, you can still feel and understand the emotions and the relationships. And that is something that is hard to do, and the writers, the cast, and Olivia Wilde have accomplished that.

So what exactly is the problem with Booksmart? And why haven’t people flocked to see it? It still feels like a “small” movie, hindered perhaps by its very Netflix-like production. It doesn’t have that big-budget, must-see-at-the-cinema demeanor that films like Superbad or even Blockers had. Even films like Neighbors and its sequel felt much bigger in scope. Booksmart just FEELS like a television movie, even if it’s not.

Poor box office runs haven’t been the death knell for small-budget, indie successes. There have been plenty of critically acclaimed films that have been dwarfed in the numbers by superheroes, cartoons and sinking ships. Hopefully, ones that fuel conversation (like Booksmart), will keep studios making them. It’s a shame that a lot of the news has relegated Booksmart to “box office failure” because it deserves more. In time, with good word of mouth, and as more and more people see it and realize its resonance, it surely will. It has to because the heart of this movie, the way in which it tells the story of complicated, messy but hopeful and joyous young adulthood will not let it die without a fight.

Booksmart is in US cinemas now and opens in Australian cinemas June 27.

BOOKSMART
Directed by: Olivia Wilde
Written by: Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, Katie Silberman
Cast: Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Lisa Kudrow, Jason Sudeikis, Will Forte, Jessica Williams
Released by: Annapurna Pictures
Runtime: 102 mins
Website: Booksmart.movie

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